Nate Leaman took the job as head coach of Providence College this spring after spending the last eight seasons at Union College. After struggling to maintain even a respectable Division I program at the beginning of his Union tenure with less than ideal institutional support, Leaman finally got what he needed from new university leadership and did the unthinkable in 2010-11, as the Dutchmen captured their first Cleary Cup with the ECAC regular season title and first trip to the NCAA Tournament, falling to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the first round.
Providence swept its opening weekend of play with victories over Hockey East opponents Boston University and Massachusetts at home. They face defending national champions Minnesota-Duluth at home this Friday and Saturday.
Jason Klump: Congratulations on the opening weekend. I know had you lost the quote would be, “It takes more than a week to turn a program around.” What’s the quote now? You can’t say this is exactly what you expected, can you?
Nate Leaman: You know, we’re a work in progress. I thought our goaltender was our best player this weekend. I think right now it was obviously a good start to the season, but we have a lot to improve and we’re just going to take it one day at a time.
JK: You did the unthinkable at Union, a school where right after you took the job, the then-president infamously stated a .500 record was more than satisfactory. Now you started 2-0 at PC, including a decisive win over BU in the opener. You can’t ask for anything better, but are you setting the bar too high for yourself?
NL: I do appreciate you remembering that quote from President Hall because not many people remember Roger Hall making that comment, and that was a lot for a young coach to battle through at the time. But we’re not looking to make statements; we’re just looking to put together 60 minutes of hockey right now. I do feel this program has a lot to offer. It’s got a rich tradition, it’s got an outstanding education, and it’s in the best league in the country. We feel without a doubt this program has a lot of potential and we’re just trying to reach that potential.
JK: Do you think you just hit a glass ceiling at Union after last year given the scholarship position and being in the ECAC, or do you feel this year’s team and beyond that, the program in general, are capable of more? I suppose that would mean do you think they are capable of a national championship?
NL: I think the program is definitely capable of more. Obviously, you lose to the team that won the national championship last year, losing to Duluth, and it was a close game. So, I think the program will reach higher steps in the ranking, but the decision for me was based mostly upon my family.
JK: Union is unique in that it is not an Ivy and also does not give scholarships, so does that put it in a uniquely difficult position to bring in the players needed to go further than last year’s team?
NL: I think every school is trying to find the right fit for their school. And I think the staff that I had at Union from Billy Riga to Rick Bennett to Ben Barr all really understood exactly what to look for, you know, the right fit for Union College. And I think that’s what ultimately benefitted very well. And we’re doing the same thing now here at Providence College, finding the right fit for the guys that want to be here and wear this jersey.
JK: How much of a difference does it make recruiting-wise having scholarships vs. not having them? And how much of a difference does it make being in Hockey East vs. the ECAC?
NL: I want to be careful not to disrespect Union or the ECAC because I spent 12 years there. I would say that every situation has its strengths and its weaknesses. And obviously, I will say about coaching a team in Hockey East that you are consistently playing teams in the top 20 all the time and the top 10, so it makes your schedule extremely challenging. So, I’ll say that.
JK: It must be hard to separate yourself from all the players at Union that you must feel a strong connection to. Are you able to follow the team at all? And you must miss being able to throw Welsh-Carr-Jooris-Zajac-Bodie out on the power play?
NL: Yeah, we had three freshman last year with over 30 points and a sophomore also, so the future was obviously very bright, you know is very bright there at Union College. You’ve got a lot of good players there. With that being said, I obviously care a lot about those guys and I will follow their progress, but I’m into it here at Providence. Our staff is 100 percent committed to turning this program around and getting it back to the elite in college hockey. I’ve developed great relationships with our new players and really looking forward to building here. So, I’ll always follow those guys and I wish them the best. But my bags are unpacked here at Providence.
JK: Seth Appert always said that the two of you spoke very often, almost every week. (As travel partners, they faced the same two opponents each conference weekend.) At the same time, you shared a very spirited rivalry between your programs. Who will fill that role in Hockey East? Or will you miss having that?
NL: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m going through the league for the first time. I don’t know the answer to that, but you know, there is nothing like the week of an RPI-Union game. But I’m looking forward to having something very similar to that at Providence.
JK: In the Capital Region, I think it was fair to say that Union being better helped RPI be better and vice versa. Being that PC and Brown are in different conferences, yours being seen as the superior one competitively, does the same idea hold true in Providence?
NL: I think there’s no doubt that Union pushed RPI and RPI pushed Union. I think that you just had young, competitive staffs there. I think Brendan Whittet is going to do a terrific job over at Brown and of course that will push us because it’s someone in your backyard that’s going to be doing a good job and pushing you. So, I think absolutely that will push us. But that being said, I think we’re going to be pushed by a lot of Hockey East teams as well. Your league being geographically that much closer, I think that pushes you as well because all these teams are in your backyard other than Vermont and Maine. And you’ve got to do well in your backyard.
JK: It appears that, like you, Seth Appert also had the chance to move to a more power conference this offseason and to a more recently successful program than your own. Are you surprised he did not go? Or do you think he has a better chance to go further with RPI?
NL: I don’t know. That’s more a question for him. But I know he is beloved by the RPI alumni, students, and that whole community. And I think that’s probably a very special situation for him and he’s in the middle of building something, so I’m sure he’s entrenched in that. But I don’t want to speculate as to his thought processes.
JK: Is your move from Union to PC and quick start a testament to why RPI can be better if they were in Hockey East?
NL: I don’t know the answer to that either. I think that Providence College was just better for my family. It was a move that was done for the family and it was something that when I met Father Shanley and Bob Driscoll, it seemed the right fit and I’m looking forward to building a program that can compete for a national championship.
JK: Are you pulling or will you pull for RPI in discussions about a potential 12th member in Hockey East? I know it’s not up to you who PC wants, but will you voice personal support for them?
NL: Certainly, if anyone comes and asks me what RPI hockey is about or support from their school, certainly I can speak to that having lived in that area for eight years and having seen that program grow and seeing the resources that they’ve put into hockey. So, if anyone asks, I would give them my opinion.
JK: I know you loved the ECAC and thought it was a great league because we ran into each other outside Baker Rink last season before your game with Princeton, and you wanted to talk about certain matchups and who was better and you really believed it was ultracompetitive top to bottom. Can Hockey East ever be like that?
NL: Well, I think Hockey East is like that. I think without a doubt Hockey East is like that. It’s a conference that’s won three of the last four national championships. You don’t do that well nationally without getting pushed from within your league and developing from within your league because ultimately that’s where your team develops. And then they’re able to do well non-conference because of how well they develop in the league. So, I think the fact that there’s some nights that you have to play the same teams back to back and also the level of play in this league really develops teams.
JK: Is it your goal to prove that a team other than BU, BC or UNH can compete in Hockey East on a consistent basis? Even if PC can compete consistently with those three as you have a winning history, what about the other programs in Hockey East with no tradition of winning?
NL: Well, I think if you look at it, I mean if you look at it closely, you know Lowell a couple years ago played for the [Hockey East] championship, Merrimack played for the championship last year, Northeastern played for the championship recently, Providence has won the championship twice. I think there’s a lot of competition in this league without a doubt. It’s not different from any league in the country. I don’t buy into it one bit that there’s a top half and a bottom half of this league.
JK: How will it be different being at a full D1 school as opposed to Union, where hockey is king? Obviously, that would be one aspect to recruiting that actually becomes more difficult in that you don’t have that selling point, correct?
NL: I think it’s a great selling point. I mean the level of facilities that Providence has is outstanding, including the renovation that we’re going to be doing to our rink this summer. But being at a school that’s all Division I, the level of all your facilities and the level of academic support is outstanding. I don’t mean that as a jab against Union at all. Having all of our sports playing in the best leagues in the country is a huge advantage for our school because you have the top facilities, trainers, doctors, buses.
JK: I asked you about this at your press conference kind of jokingly, but in reality, I know it’s different in Providence, all due respect to the time Mark Divver puts in, than it was in Schenectady with reporters following you around with a video recorder and asking tough questions. So does that eliminate some of the pressure starting a new job? Is it easier to concentrate on hockey?
NL: I think that’s neither here nor there. Ultimately, we want to build that here and you build that by winning. I think obviously we had a sellout the first night which was terrific and we’ve had the front page of the Providence Journal several times so I think with the emergence of our program, all that will come.
JK: You came very close to hitting your stated goal of 3,000 fans at Schneider against BU on Friday. Without there being any winning results to draw them in yet at that point, is that just all on your reputation alone?
NL: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think so. I think playing a top 10 team in the country probably had something to do with it, and I think people came excited for hockey around here. And this being a school that gets excited for hockey has a lot to do with it.
JK: Now that you are out of it, any comments about officiating in the ECAC?
NL: No (chuckles). That’s a good way to get a laugh out of me though.
Jason Klump has covered ECAC men’s hockey for three seasons, first for USCHO, then for CHN, and now for Inside Hockey. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Klump.